Onions seed starting

Onions – Starting Seed – Planting to the Garden – Leeks

In past years, my transplants from Dixondale would be arriving this week and I’d be out there in mid-February starting to plant at least 750 of my 1500 to 2000  onions.

I’ve always planted onions earlier than most folks in my area. That extra growth time really helps.  By the time the right amount of daylight hours trigger bulbing, they have a good root system established and good top growth to help them mature.

Cause of Bolting?

Onions go dormant when temperatures fall below 45 degrees and start growing again when it warms.  It’s said by folks with authority (like Dixondale Farms – the largest grower of onions in the world) that if this happens more than twice it will likely result in the onion bolting.

Fortunately, that has not been true for me in all the 35 years I’ve grown onions.  About 10% to 15 % of my onions bolt.  At most, about 20% bolt, but that’s rare. (Bolting onions are fine to eat, they just don’t keep well.)

Unusually Cold This Winter

In most years that I remember here in Virginia, it’s cold with temperatures into the 20s, but it doesn’t usually stay that way very long.  It’s always a back-and-forth thing.

This year has really been something we’re not use to with cold temperatures in the teens and single digits for long periods of time.

This Year’s Date for Planting Onion Transplants

My onion transplants won’t arrive until the first week in March this year. Can’t tell you for sure just why I decided to do that.  It was just a gut feeling. I’m not sure if it was because I knew I couldn’t get the onions planted in February because of being pressed for time getting the book to the printer, or because of the severe cold we’ve had this year.  Maybe a bit of both.

I have 3 onion beds ready for planting and did not complete preparation of the others.  Still have that ahead of me next week.

According to the Almanac it’s going to be topsy-turvy weather this spring. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Starting Onion Seeds

Regular readers will know that I don’t have any grow lights or any place inside to keep seedlings. When I start seedlings inside in the winter I’m limited to the space on top of my washing machine.

Usually once things germinate, I seal the jugs and they go outside to remain there 24/7 until transplant time.  That’s the only way they’ll get enough light to do well. When temperatures fall, I put my make-shift cold frame over them for additional protection.


I put 6 jugs in each of the cut-down boxes.  The two boxes fit on top of my washing machine at night.  Here I have them under my make-shift coldframe.

Seed starting took a back sit to the technical issues that came up when I was trying to get the book ready for the printers.  I did manage to get 12 jugs prepared and planted with onion seed on January 4th, which was about 10 days earlier than planned.

Most of my seed was for last year (2013) but I still had great germination and robust growth. The seed for Yellow Sweet Spanish and White Sweet Spanish seed was 2011 and 2012 seed. Most didn’t germinate, but I got a few.  Percent of germination for onion seed goes way down after more than a year.

copra seedling

Copra seedlings.  February 17th.

rossa di milano

Rossa di Milano seedlings on February 17th.


Redwing onions seedlings on February 17th.

Seedlings Have to Have Light

Once germinated the seedlings had to go outside to get light needed for growth.  I did bring them in at night since I didn’t want them to go dormant, but to continue their strong growth in preparation of transplanting to the garden. (Even with a strong root system when they’re transplanted, they take about 30 days to really adapt to their garden home.)

By the first week of February all the seedings were up about 6 inches and I trimmed all of them back to about 2 inches with a pair of scissors.  They’ve grown to about 4 or 5 inches again. So as you can tell, growth is vigorous even though the conditions have been less than ideal. (Update – I stopped trimming seedlings after year one or two of growing from seed.  It’s not necessary.)


Dessert Sunrise onion seedling on February 17th.


Red Bull seedlings on February 17th.


Yellow Sweet Spanish onion seedling.  Poor germination.  White Sweet Spanish was even less, but seed was even older. (2011)

Trying Lincoln Leeks This Year

I’ve never wanted to grow leeks before, but decided to give them a try this year.

I’m not sure I want to plant all these because they’ll take up valuable onion ‘real estate’.  But maybe I can find some room in out-of-the-way places to plant enough to give me an idea.

They’re suppose to like regular watering, but  I’m not saying a word to them about it!  Maybe they’ll do well anyway. 🙂


Lincoln Leek seedlings on February 17th.

A Few Perennials Wintersown at the end of December

I managed to sow a few jugs of perennials.  The two jugs in the picture below have asclepias seed (also called milkweed or butterfly weed)  in them and have been taking care of themselves outside since planted at the end of December.


Jugs wintersown with asclepias seed on Dec. 7 .

Final Thoughts

The birds are already telling me that it’s time for spring.  The earth is filled with energy as it prepares to begin growth.  Man’s new year begins in the dead of winter, but the new year according to the earth’s schedule is about to begin.

Let’s get ready for it!

Wishing you every success!


Related Posts

Warm Weather Crops and the Winter Sown Method

Growing Onions from Seed       At the end of this post more than a dozen other posts on onions are listed.

Wintersown-Answer to questions about seeds and transplanting

You Can Plant in December

Looking at Winter Sown Seedling and the Garden

Seed Starting – Another Variation of Winter Sown

Winter Sown – Another Plus

Transplanting Root Crop Seedling

Wintersown and Garden Report – Radishes – Lettuce – Spinach

Seed Starting – It’s Easy Even with Less than Perfect Conditions

Winter Sowing – It Begins and Vegetable Tidbits

Seed Starting – The Easy Wintersown Way


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  • Hmmmmm – I have NOT prepared my onion beds, and fortunately, have NOT received my Dixondale order (I think I am due the last week of February). I have been looking at the onion beds and thinking about it if that counts! Just used the last of my onions this weekend, and am now back to store bought. I need to chop and freeze a lot more this year to get me through to harvest. Lost quite a few as they grew out after drying, although I thought I had pulled out all the bolters. If I catch them sooner, I can chop and freeze.

    Off for another day of rehabbing our new rental and NOT gardening….

  • I’m in New Orleans, and I planted my onions seeds back in October, and then the transplants in mid-December. Since it was my first time growing from seed, I also ordered some from Dixondale. All of mine are short-day onions. This is only my 2nd year growing onions, I was so happy with them last year, I decided to grow double the amount!

  • Great photos Theresa, they sure do help visual learners such as myself. You sure do make me a happy girl 🙂 you are always so positive and helpful. I planted onion seed in December, but I forgot the helpfulness of the winter sow jugs. They are in flats in my little green house. I broke my leg, bad, and can’t get out to tend them, so it looks like I may have to purchase my onions this year 🙁 I did, however, manage to start some peppers inside. They do have a couple brown spots on their seed leaves. I am not sure what that is all about.

  • Oh and I almost forgot-how do you prick out all of those tiny onions to plant without hurting them?

  • We are having the warmest weather for over 50 years and can already start planting our early potatoes and other vegetables. Our soil temperature is already up to 8-10 degrees celsius, which is quite satisfactory for early potatoes. Your bad weather is the mirror image of Europe’s favorable weather.

  • Theresa,

    Great writeup, and shows the myriad of ways to get the same result. The ‘whateverworks’ theory is what gardening is all about. I’m assuming long-day onions for VA, was wondering what varieties you’re be getting from dixondale this year. THX- Randy

  • Glad you’re going to increase your number of onions this year Kate. It’s really nice to have great garden-growns all the way through.

    It’s normal to loose a few onions over the winter. Some dry out or maybe sprout. Just part of it.

    Good luck in getting to those onions beds! And thanks for taking time to comment.

    Hi Jo-Ann,
    It’s always a great idea to plan for backup! Good job! Was really pleased to hear that you were so happy with your onions last year that you’re doubling your amount this year. Way to go!

    So sorry to hear that you broke your leg!! Hope you heal quickly and in time to garden!
    When will you be able to get around well enough that you can get to the greenhouse?

    The nice thing about having seed growing in the jugs that are taped up, they don’t require tending.
    Nonetheless, maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised and your onions in the greenhouse will be ok.

    By “their seed leaves” I guess you mean the cotyledon leaves. I wouldn’t worry too much about brown spots on those two leaves since they usually die off anyway. If the new leaves have the brown spots, that might be cause for concern.

    Onion seedlings are easy. You just take out a clump of the seedlings. When you’re in the garden and ready to transplant, just gently pull each one and they’ll come right off the clump. You might loose one or two, but most will do great.

    Millard, that’s interesting about Europe having such favorable weather. All comes in cycles. I remember friends saying that when they were kids, the rivers and creeks here remained frozen solid almost all winter. They could walk across large bodies of water without fear of the ice being thin. Then for 30 or 40 years that was not the case. Has been this year though.

    Hi Randy,
    My order from Dixondale this year includes Copra, Borettana Cippolini, Highlander and Red River.
    Borettana Cippolini is a specialty onion. Particularly nice when you need to caramelize onions. They have a great taste that way. Highlander and Red River are new for Dixondale this year. I’m looking forward to trying both of them. Red River is suppose to be a like like Mars which I grew years ago and really liked.

    Virginia is in the intermediate area for onions, but actually I can grow intermediate, long day, and short day onions here. It’s just coincidence that I happen to really like these long day onions – so I have almost all long day onions this year. For many, many years I grew Candy and loved them. BUT since Monsanto now owns the company that owns Candy, I will not grow them. I won’t knowingly support Monsanto in any way — even with my few pennies.

    Thanks for commenting Randy.


  • I forgot to mention previously about Kate’s place. If you want to see her “farm”, the house, the animals, and some of her garden go to her website and click gallery from the top menu http://www.doubleupfarm.com.

    I think you’ll really enjoy it. I did.

  • Hi Theresa,

    Thank you for relieving my mind about the cotyledon leaves. I will be watching for color on their true leaves.
    Also, I forgot to ask how deep you plant your new onion seedlings?
    I am not allowed to put weight on my leg for another 6 weeks 🙁 I may try to figure some other form of transportation to the green house. The problem is it is so steep and uneven. I will work on a solution tho 🙂

    Thank you for posting Kate’s web page. What a wonderful treat for me to see all that she is doing. I love her top bar hive. I have a couple hives, one top bar, one langstroth. Unfortunately I lost them to the bitter cold and very heavy cold winds. Broke my heart they were so wonderful to have around. I will try again this next spring.

  • Toni, do take care not to set your leg back in any way. If you can’t make it to the green house just get some jugs and start planting. Set them where you can easily get to them.

    I scattered the onion seeds and then “sprinkled” about 1/4″ on top of the already dampened grow mix. (No more than 1/2″.)And firmed slightly with my hand.

    So sad about losing your bees to the cold. Glad you’re going to try again.
    I just knew Kate’s web page would be of interest. She has some nice things going on there at DoubleUp Farm!

  • Theresa,

    We have never grown bulbing onions. We always feared they wouldn’t dry (cure) well in our very humid weather. We do grow bunching onions, and I am so pleased to discover that they survived the single digit temperatures we had several days this winter. Even the ones growing in a pot outside my basement door are greening up!

  • Hi Pat,
    Not sure where you are located, but our area is known for humid conditions. I cure onions outside. See this post https://tendingmygarden.com/how-to-have-garden-onions-april-thru-january/ for detailed information and pictures.

    Glad you had the bunching onions that made it through. Some varieties of bunching onions make it through the cold and some don’t.

    Be sure to keep your clumps going so you’ll have them for years. What a treasure.


  • Theresa,

    We are in northern middle Tennessee. Very humid summers. But I read your post on how to have garden onions, and you make it sound so easy!

    I started the bunching onions from seeds years ago, and I habitually separate the clumps each year and replant here and there. It’s fun to have “free” plants. (I also scavenge every spring for volunteer herbs and flowers!)


  • Onions are one indeed of the easiest crops to grow Pat. I hope you will make the plunge and grow them this year.
    If I can help you more, let me know.
    So glad you are “habitually” separating your bunching onions and keeping them going in various places. And is lot of fun having “free” plants.
    Have a great growing year and keep posted on how you’re doing.

    PS. And by the way, if onions didn’t like high humidity they wouldn’t be in my garden. Most of our summers are extremely humid. So don’t let that stop you.
    One tip: be sure to read ALL my posts on onions before you plant. Just put “onions” in the search box at the almost top of the left side column and review the ones that pertain to growing onions.

  • Have you started setting out your onions in your garden, Theresa? I’m about 1 hour north west of you and have been afraid to set out my onions. I’m still fairly new at gardening, this is only my 3rd year, and I just don’t know what to make of this cold end of winter/ early spring.

  • Jennifer, you can go right ahead and set out your onions. They are very cold hard and will survive below freezing temperatures (in most cases) if necessary.
    If you have grown your transplants from seed, be sure to harden them off before setting them out.
    I usually plant in February and have even planted in the snow before. This year I’m a bit late and am just getting them planted.
    Never hesitate to ask me things, because I am more than happy to help you.

  • Jennifer – just echoing my “Onion Mentor” who gave me onion advice 5 years ago or so when I started.

    I planted my onions three weeks ago (Charlotte, NC) – into the ground, heavily mulched with leaves (you could not really see the onions at all). They have done very well and seem to be growing happily although not quickly until we get some steady warmth.

    But nothing else, this constant dropping below freezing would kill off anything else without covering it, and as the world’s laziest gardener, well – that’s too much work!!

  • Thank you, Theresa. Today I started hardening off my transplants from seed. I also have transplants from Dixondale I ordered just in case my seeds didn’t produce well. I have more than enough family to give onions away to, so I’m not worried about what to do with all these onions.

    I will start putting in the Dixondale transplants this weekend.

    So that leaves me with a question about when to set out my cabbage and broccoli seedlings? I started hardening them all off today, too, along with celery. I have the ability to put up some low tunnels if need be. Thoughts?


  • Thanks Kate for the confirmation! Talk about an onion success story! You’re it girl!

    Jennifer, after your harden off your cabbage, broccoli and celery, go ahead and transplant to the garden.
    Cabbage and broccoli will survive colder temperatures (26-31 degrees F). Their foliage may burn, but it won’t kill them. This will especially be true if they get out in the garden and have experience with almost freezing temperatures before the even colder temps come. Celery will survive light frosts.

    Keep an eye on the weather from now through April. From what the almanac says — it will be a yo-yo of cold and hot this spring. So if it looks like temperatures will severely drop then you can cover things — mostly especially the celery. Probably won’t get cold enough to hurt the broccoli and cabbage.

    I am so proud of you for growing from seed. Here you are in your 3rd year and way ahead of so many new gardeners! Keep up the good work Jennifer!

  • Hi Theresa:

    Do you plant each blade separately? If not what do you do about the crowding? or does it even matter? I started garlic chives inside but some are close and I am wondering how I will transplant them.

    I wasn’t too successful with onion seed. I started 24 as this is the first I am doing this. But only 5 or 6 survived. I think I overwatered while waiting for them to germinate or watered them and the potting mix covered the seed too much. Anyway, I will be getting some local sets as the cost from Dixondale is too much for the amount I buy.

    Thanx, Theresa


  • Yes, Rita, I plant each separately. It’s easy to take a little clump out of the container and gently pull them apart. Easy, easy.

    Chives are totally different than onions. You can plant more than one per spot if you want.
    Once chives get started they can seed all over the place and can take over it you let them.

    When I start my onions (or any other seed indoors) I water the grow mix well before even putting it in the container. Then I plant. No need to water after that until they grow a bit and/or the grow mix is total dry when you stick your finger in it.

    Hope you’ll go ahead and plant the 5 or 6 onions that survived for you so you can see what they do.


  • Theresa,

    I would be afraid of breaking the root if I did onions that close. Also, can’t one keep the spread of garlic chives by snipping the flower?


  • By the time I transplant the roots of each onion is 2 to 3 inches long. They don’t break easily, but if a little piece did break off it wouldn’t hurt them.
    And yes,Rita, chives can be kept under control (for the most part) by not allowing them to seed. They will still spread from the base but not be invasive if they don’t seed.

  • Theresa, I have been reading up on onions again after taking a year off. I have some wonderful small transplants just like those in the pictures above. Mine are in jugs also.
    I keep reading about transplanting onions, and most places tell me to wait until they are thin pencil width and / or until they have 5-6 leaves.

    Weather aside, have you ever planted out very young onion transplants before they reach these dimensions? If so, what has been your experience? Is it necessary to wait, and if so, what is the thinking behind this? Thank you very much.

  • Sandra, this is one of the things that I will cover in detail in my book on onions.
    But the short answer is —
    you definitely can plant onions that have less than 5 or 6 leaves. In most cases the only way we’d be able to get seedlings with 5 or 6 leaves in our zone is to plant earlier. That can be tricky — which is another thing I want to cover in detail in the book.

    You might review this post: https://tendingmygarden.com/growing-onions-from-seed/

    The idea behind transplants having 5 or 6 leaves is that you’ll get larger onions. That can be true for sure. But there are plenty of folks out there that plant the small transplants and still get good sized onions.

    I think a good understanding of how onions generally perform is good, but never let it stop you from planting. One thing is for sure, if you don’t plant, you won’t get anything. 🙂

  • Thanks Theresa,

    I can protect them, and the soil is clear of weeds so I”m pretty sure I won’t just lose them because they are so small.

    When I compare what I keep in jugs to what gets into the ground and does well, I always think that the soil is the best place for them.
    The only reason I let things linger in jugs might be if I don’t have the space, or the time to get them transplanted, or if I think they might just be eaten right away or get swamped, or weather.

    My thinking was, why wouldn’t they get to pencil size and beyond in the soil just as much as in jugs? And couldn’t they just get bigger if they went in early – like now?
    I look forward to reading your book. Onions are such a challenge for me, and so fun to try to get right.

    I also have shallots to transplant, and I think they might be perennial, but I’m not sure. I’m finding it hard to get information on them. I think I’ll just treat them like small onions until I get more info.
    My overwintered spinach is growing at a tremendous rate. Even the new tiny seedlings I planted a few weeks ago are getting big. Unless I get something unexpected happening in the weather, I’d say this gardening season is off to an early start – you?
    I am definitely not set up for heavy snow, that’s my only fear.
    Thanks so much for your answer, I’m going to try to get out there today and tomorrow.

  • Sandra, I agree, anything in the ground will grow faster and better than in a jug IF the weather conditions are right.
    Our weather can be so crazy. Warm spells like now and then it could turn cold again.
    As long as you can protect the tiny seedlings from severe cold you have a great chance.

    I thought that shallots were perennials like potato onions (multilpliers). I also thought they should be planted in the fall.

    Glad your spinach is going gangbusters! I know how you enjoy it!


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